© Al Powers, PowersImagery.com

HOCKEY IN SIN CITY By Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell

Vegas Golden Knights dazzles with new arena and white hot team


Think back to 1970 and the NHL’s newest expansion team, the Buffalo Sabres, is ready to take to the ice. The venue… Memorial Auditorium, a creaky 10,429 seat arena built under a Works Progress Administration grant during the Great Depression. The smell of fresh coats of paint mixes with that of decades worth of stale beer, new gold seats close to the ice replace the old brown benches, and the lights are darkened to begin the show.

Out comes figure skater Sundae Bafo, tossing her baton up in the air and straddling the ice to the strains of Khatchaturian’s “Sabre Dance”. The crowd is pumped, the table is set, and skating on to the ice is a rag tag group of castoffs from 12 other teams, the new Buffalo Sabres.

How quaint that seems, and how different things are today.

Las Vegas has a new hockey team. They are called the Vegas Golden Knights, in a city that the major sports were slow to embrace because of the city’s almost limitless access to sports wagering. They play in an arena that opened just under two years ago, T-Mobile Arena, down at the south end of the famed Las Vegas Strip and sandwiched in between the Monte Carlo and New York, New York casino mega resorts.

What hasn’t changed? The Golden Knights is also a rag tag group of castoffs, now being sent from 30 other peer teams. But these castoffs are lighting it up on the ice. Last week the team won its 8th game to go 8-1, and their front office was quick to tweet out that it was only October, but the Golden Knights had already matched the entire season win total set by the first year expansion Washington Capitals in 1974-1975.

And that means that the Golden Knights are quickly attracting a devoted fan following locally, in a city where minor league hockey has had several iterations over the past decades, with a team in the former International Hockey League playing in the Thomas and Mack Center on the UNLV campus, and more recently, an ECHL team sited at the Orleans Arena. The NHL even staged an outdoor preseason game outside Caesars Palace in the early 90s. But no one ever imagined that hockey would become as big as this in this market.

Vegas Golden Knights center William Karlsson celebrates after scoring against St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen during overtime .

Season ticket sales here have been capped at 16,000, and in a nice touch, the Golden Knights have honored their best customers by embedding all their names right into the ice surface. The secondary market for tickets has been hot as well, with robust demand for most games so far.

What that means for the visiting fan from other NHL cities is plan your trip details in advance. And be prepared to pay.

The Buffalo Sabres made their only visit to Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago. And just last week the Chicago Black Hawks played at Vegas. Both teams went home with disappointing losses, although the Sabres’ furious late comeback got them to overtime and at least one point. On both occasions, the streets were awash with fans wearing jerseys of the visiting teams. And finding plenty of places to find a party.

The T-Mobile Arena neighborhood is a visitors’ paradise. Put away the thoughts of Buffalo and its snow covered adirondack chairs, portable toilets strewn along vacant cobblestone streets, and a downtrodden urban garden, all gifts to the people of Buffalo from the calcified and mummified Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation and its pork laden patronage roster.

The streets and public plazas surrounding T-Mobile are a sea of live music stages, vending carts, a plethora of restaurants, pubs, and eateries all with outdoor patios, ample street furniture, fountains and courtyards with plenty of public seating. Neon lights, LED boards and backlit ads are everywhere, giving not only a great city vibe, but also a signature Vegas vibe. What that makes is a destination venue that rockets the Vegas Golden Knights into a top 5 venue experience for the hockey road tripper.

Once past the massive public plaza offering yet more live music and bars on portable carts offering adult libations, it’s into the arena and yet more surprises await.

Yes, there’s food, and plenty of choices, courtesy of Levy Restaurants, the venue’s concessionaire. But it is the plethora of bars on all levels which gives the building its concessions signature.

And the “must have” drink? The Atomic Fizz.

The Golden Knights mixologists have come up with the perfect drink, a mix of Golden Goose Le Citron vodka, Aperol orange liqueur, agave nectar, prickly pear puree, freshly squeezed lemon juice and sparkling water. It is one of three specialty cocktails exclusively available at this venue, and pays homage to the nuclear testing which once was a hallmark of the faraway deserts outside of Las Vegas.

Showtime. A “Golden Knight” on skates, dressed like an extra from Game of Thrones or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, quickly slays a representative from the visiting team, shrouded in black. A colorful drum corps leads the charge from a perch high above one end zone, amidst an old time medieval castle. Their drums glow in white and gold neon whenever struck. And the ice dancers also help rev up the crowd.

The rejects and castoffs from the home team take to the ice, and the crowd needs little help revving themselves up. This is Vegas, after all, and if the season ended today, these castoffs would be hosting a first round playoff game as one of the top seeds in the West.

If only Sundae Bafo could watch the intros and soak it all in. She’d surely be shaking her head in amazement.